Gad Beck, widely believed to be the last known gay survivor of the Holocaust, passed away on June 24 in a hospital in Berlin, his city of birth. He died just six days before his 89th birthday.
Beck is survived by his partner of 35 years, Julius Laufer.
His death was first reported in the Jerusalem Post, by this correspondent. Laufer, who spoke to Gay City News exclusively on July 3, said Beck died of kidney failure. His final words, Laufer said, were “Mom, help… mom, help.” Prior to his illness, Beck had been living in a senior citizens’ home.
For years before his capture, Beck outwitted the Nazis with legendary resistance actions to save Jews. After the war, extroverted, witty, and filled with a kind of adolescent sense of possibility about the world, he displayed an electric personality that dazzled and deeply moved those who saw him on television or read his memoir. On a German talk show, he said, “The Americans in New York called me a great hero. I said no… I’m really a little hero.”
In one of a remarkable string of heroic efforts, he sported an oversized Hitler Youth uniform and entered a deportation center in Berlin to free his Jewish lover, Manfred Lewin. According to Beck, Manfred said, “Gad, I can’t go with you. My family needs me. If I abandon them now, I could never be free.” In his highly acclaimed autobiography “An Underground Life: The Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin,” Beck wrote, “In those seconds, watching him go, I grew up.”
The Nazis deported the entire Lewin family to the Auschwitz extermination camp, where they were murdered. As a gay Jew in Hitler’s Germany, Beck faced the ubiquitous lethal anti-Semitism of the Holocaust and the violent — and often deadly — persecution of gay men.
Gerhard Beck was born on June 30, 1923, along with his twin sister, Miriam, to an Austrian Jewish father and a Protestant mother. He would spend his early years in Scheunenviertel, a working-class Jewish district in Berlin.
Germany’s Nazi racial laws classified Beck as a mischling, or half-breed. He and his father were detained at a holding compound in the Rosenstrasse in central Berlin. After the non-Jewish wives of the prisoners launched a massive street protest that stunned the Nazis in 1943, the Beck family members were released. There were “thousands of women who stood for days… my aunts demanded, ‘Give us our children and men,’” he wrote. “The Rosenstrasse event made one thing absolutely clear to me: I won’t wait until we get deported.”
Beck joined Chug Chaluzi, an underground Zionist resistance youth group, and played a significant role in ensuring the survival of many hidden Jews in Berlin. According to the entry about him at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, he said that “as a homosexual, I was able to turn to my trusted non-Jewish, homosexual acquaintances to help supply food and hiding places.”
In a 1999 New York Times review of Beck’s autobiography, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, wrote, “What he was often doing was trading sexual favors for aid to the people he was helping to protect: an apartment to hide in, some food to eat, even escape to Switzerland. But his transactions were rarely cynical. What always comes through in his account is a mischievous delight in his sexuality.”
Lehmann-Haupt quoted Beck writing, “Of course the boss wanted something in return. He wanted me. I wasn’t totally uninterested. He was a construction-worker type with some signs of a paunch, but he was muscular.”
Beck was the subject of a documentary film, “The Life of Gad Beck” and also appeared in the critically acclaimed “Paragraph 175,” which exposed the ways in which Hitler radically intensified the enforcement of the ban on homosexual conduct that already existed in the German penal code in castrating gay men or sending them to extermination camps.
Speaking about his life as a gay Jew, Beck famously said, “God doesn’t punish for a life of love.” And in joking acknowledgement of the significance of his life’s trajectory, he once stated, “Only Steven Spielberg can film my life –– forgive me, forgive me.”
Shortly before the end of the war in 1945, a Jewish spy working for the Gestapo betrayed Beck and some of his fellow resistance fighters. When the Soviet army liberated Berlin, Beck was released from his captivity. He returned to his Zionist work, helping Jewish survivors emigrate to Palestine. He moved to Israel in 1947 and remained there until 1979. Miriam, his twin sister, died there.
Two years before his departure from Israel, while on a visit to Vienna, Beck met Laufer in a bar there. Born in Prague in 1938 to a Jewish father and a half-Jewish mother, Laufer survived the Holocaust by hiding in a Catholic Church until the war ended. He lived with Beck in Israel during Beck’s last year there.
Beck returned to Germany in 1979 to become director of the Jewish Adult Education Center in Berlin. In a telephone interview with Gay City News, Judith Kessler, editor of the Berlin Jewish community’s monthly magazine, jüdisches berlin, recalled that Beck would organize gay singles meetings at the Center. She described him as “open” and “sweet,” saying, “he would speak with everybody.” She said Beck regularly attended Berlin’s annual Christopher Street Day Parade and waved an Israeli flag.
Laufer recalled that his longtime partner was “always giving interviews” after his return to Berlin.
In an email message, Ralf Dose, the director of the Magnus Hirschfeld Society (MHS) in Germany, wrote Beck “intensively promoted” the work of the institute aimed at preserving the tradition of Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, a pioneering sexologist –– known as the “Einstein of Sex” –– who was a champion of equality for sexual minorities. Explaining that Beck opened up the Jewish Adult Education Center to MHS lectures series, Dose stated that “without the startup help of Gad Beck it would have been much more difficult” to preserve and promote the historical record of Hirschfeld’s research and writings.
The Nazi legacy lived on for homosexual Germans –– some of whom remained imprisoned after the extermination camps were liberated –– well past 1945.
“For homosexuals, the Third Reich is still not over,” the German-Jewish theologian Hans-Joachim Schoeps said in 1963. That remarkable assessment highlights the significance of Beck’s role in breaking down homophobic barriers in the Federal Republic.
Beck’s death was met with widespread praise for the contributions he made, and his funeral, according to Laufer, was attended by many Berliners.
“We remember the Jewish resistance fighter and homosexual Gad Beck,” the Lesbian and Gay Association of Berlin-Brandenburg wrote in an email message to Gay City News. “Through the National Socialists, Gad Beck lost his partner Manfred Lewin. After surviving the Holocaust, Gad Beck did not remain quiet. He engaged himself in the fight against discrimination and for justice and respect. “
David Mixner, the American gay rights activist, writing on his blog, recalled a 1996 meeting with Beck.
“When I first met Gad Beck I was enveloped by this man who, with a huge smile, emanated pure joy as a way of life,” Mixner wrote. “Gad had flown into Washington, DC, in 1996 to be the keynote speaker at a formal ceremony at the National Memorial Holocaust Museum… The event was to commemorate the members of the LGBT community who had died in the Holocaust and for the museum to accept a $1.7 million gift raised in the last two years by LGBT Americans.”
Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based journalist who frequently writes for the Jerusalem Post and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.